Originally published by Matthew Priest in esquireme.com, March 2016
Chris Burkhardt and Charles Blaschke are the founders of Taka Solutions and the winners of this year’s The Venture Gulf regional social entrepreneurship competition. Their company, which retrofits buildings to save energy, is based in Dubai, and its recent victory will see them go to the international finals in New York this summer as the Gulf region’s representatives.
The former roommates used their backgrounds in mechanical engineering, business, and construction to form Taka Solutions in 2013. There are two strands to the operations: their core business is installing equipment and technology in large-scale buildings to make them more energy efficient. This works primarily by deploying IOT [internet of things] sensors to gather information, which is analysed by engineers to learn how to regulate the building in an energy-efficient way.
While this seems like an initiative that any building owner would welcome, in reality landlords are often unwilling to shoulder the upfront costs. So what Taka Solutions does is to install all the equipment for free and then split the proceeds of the resulting savings. And given the extreme environment and poor engineering in this region, the money-saving potential is huge. “Imagine if your phone didn’t have software; it’d be useless,” says Charles Blaschke. “That’s how we look at energy in buildings. They don’t have the technology we need today, and we see that as a gap that needs to be filled.”
Lowering demand is a much simpler solution than finding new ways to produce cleaner energy, so this is a great initiative on a macro-environmental level. But the reason Taka Solutions won The Venture regional finals was because of the second strand to their business. If they win a share of the $1m prize money on offer, they pledge to spend it on developing an app that helps individuals regulate and save on their energy bills. And this is where the real potential for change lies. “It’s great for us to do 100 or 1,000 buildings,” says Blaschke. “But real change will happen when 100 million people save 10 percent. That’s more than any group of buildings will ever be able to achieve.” Plus, of course, this addresses the fact that retro-fitting entire buildings aids the owners rather than the tenants.
The free app, which Blaschke describes as a “miniature energy audit report”, will show people how much energy they’ve used, where it went, and know how much they should be using for their house. It will be a platform for vendors to provide services that help people save energy, and therefore money. Finally, the app will have a “gamification” element, in the form of a star ratings system, allowing potential tenants to make more informed decisions when they are looking at new places to rent or buy.
Burkhardt and Blaschke now have to convince an international panel of The Venture judges that they can turn this idea into a scaleable and disruptive technology. To aid them in this challenge, they will attend an Intensive Accelerator Week, hosted this month at Oxford University by the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, where they will gain advice from entrepreneurs and business leaders.
One head-start they already have is the timing of their initiative. The 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris showed that a global consensus on the need to address these issues is gaining momentum, but no real solutions have been presented. This is mirrored in the UAE, which is pushing for sustainable energy, without having arrived at a game-changing strategy on a grassroots level. Ultimately, there will have to be multiple initiatives, but for now the situation is clear: green technology is expensive and not yet effective. “We want people to understand that saving energy is half the cost of generating new electricity,” says Blaschke. It’s a simple equation that has to play a huge role in shaping the future of our planet — as well as the more immediate size of our energy bills.